Hi-Rez Studios COO Todd Harris on making tough decisions and learning from failure

‘If Smite hadn’t worked out we would definitely have had to downscale’

Hi-Rez Studios has transformed itself during the last two years.

Studio CEO Erez Goren admitted in September 2013 that its first two free-to-play games Global Agenda and Tribes: Ascend had not performed to expectations. It had invested $30m in game development at the studio, making back only $10m.

Hi-Rez eventually made the difficult decision to stop support for its games, much to the grievance of some players, and focused on developing its new project, Smite. The company suddenly went from a three-team studio to a one-game company.

“We had to make a hard decision around not enhancing Tribes: Ascend and going all in on Smite, which was difficult,” Hi-Rez chief operating office Todd Harris tells Develop.

“I wish we didn’t have to make that hard choice. But in retrospect I think it was a good one.”

Smite was based off a single game mode within Global Agenda, but having seen the success of League of Legends in the MOBA space, it decided to create a full game out of it. The studio toyed with the idea of making the title using Global Agenda assets, but opted to start from scratch and go with a fantasy theme instead.

A lot was riding on Smite. Harris says if it hadn’t worked out, a number of layoffs would have been on the cards.

"If this hadn’t worked out we would definitely have had to downscale," he states. "I don’t think we would have gone away as a studio, but we would have had to retrench and redefine our goals. So it was pretty important."

Despite the high stakes, Harris says the team was always confident the game would be a success, based on early indicators from players.

“The first time we took it to PAX, even though the art was ugly and we only had 12 champions, we saw people play the game and then get back in an hour and a half line to play it again,” he says.

“We were like, that’s pretty special. We saw large crowds gather while we were showing it off. And then in early beta we can actually measure player behaviour. We can see how long they’re spending in the game, how often they come back and log in, how much they refer a friend. And all those key indicators, even early on, were very, very high, higher than we had seen by far in any other game.

“So that gave us a bit more confidence that this was worth going for.”

Harris says through failure the studio learned a number of lessons it could then rectify for Smite. One of the key decisions when designing the game was to reign in the scale of the title. It wanted to focus on a polished experience rather than going as broad as possible.

“Fundamentally, I think with Global Agenda we learned that we went a little too broad and it was probably better to be more polished and deep, even if the scope was more narrow,” he says.

“In hindsight, it was super ambitious. And we love it, but it was super-ambitious. But we did learn that free-to-play, with a more narrow offering, would probably do well, so that was our main lesson.”

Another lesson the studio had to learn was ensuring the tools were in place for Smite to become a success in the eSports arena. The studio had always planned for it to be an eSports-style game – unlike Global Agenda and Tribes where it was made difficult for users to play competitively, despite the demand for it.

Ranked play, a ranked leaderboard system for players to aspire to and even get scouted on, a robust spectator mode and match-making system were all up for improvement and implementation.

All of this has helped ensure Smite now stands at some ten million players. Harris says its success now is down to both the talented team the patience of the studio’s CEO in the early days.

“We only had one funder in the early days,” he says. “It wasn’t like we took external funding. In the early days, he [Erez Goren] had made a lot of money in other businesses, and this was his personal fortune he was investing. He was patient enough to give us the time as a studio to learn those lessons.”

Having garnered ten million users, the studio has been able to become a major player in the eSports arena. In January it hosted the Smite World Championship, with a prize pool of $2.6m. And it plans to do it again, though next time with a cap of $1m to ensure funds for other events throughout the season.

The studio itself has also grown to 175 staff. Harris says it’s even looking at adding another 25 employees by the end of the year. It seems that its CEO’s patience with the development team has paid off. Learning from failure has allowed the studio to create a hit game in Smite, able to challenge Riot Games’ League of Legends and Valve’s DOTA 2 in the MOBA space where many other publishers have failed.

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